Courage, Fear, Safety And Things In-between

As a little girl I was obsessed with climbing trees. It was an odd thing to look forward to every morning. But that is what loved. There were plenty to choose from in my neighborhood, and once I had mastered one tree I moved on to the next, more challenging one. My favorite one was a guava tree. The best fruits hung from the top most branches and I did everything I could to get every last one of them before the other kids did.

There were scrapes, falls, and injuries. I don’t remember any of them being too serious, but I suppose they could have been. My mother was alternately concerned and horrified and tried her best to curb my arboreal tendencies. She once told me that my ears would fall off if I kept climbing trees, and I believed her for two whole days (two days in which I could have conquered at least 4 other trees!).

In the early 80s in small town India, this was our version of extreme sports.

Early tree-climbing obsession gave way to real extreme sports in my early twenties. I struggled my way up to Mt. Washington twice, I climbed indoors, I climbed volcanoes, I jumped off bridges and planes without a second thought. My family (specifically, my older brother) labelled me an adrenaline junkie and gave up trying to talk me out of these things.

I don’t think it was the adrenaline. I didn’t do it for the bragging rights either, because very few people outside my family knew anything about my alleged exploits! It was a simple explanation really – this was how I escaped. I have never felt more peaceful or content than when I am outside, in the middle of nowhere. It was my therapy, and it was free!  I can’t wait for my daughter to experience that pure joy. I look forward to taking her out on her first hike, her first climb, her first race. And then I wonder. ..

The moment you become a parent, the word “safety” sneaks its way into your life with overwhelming significance. It is vitally important that we all stay “safe” and together. I don’t want to risk my life by jumping off a cliff; I don’t want her to either. I appreciate the irony, I understand the double standards. I know that when the time comes, if she does want to go off and do something extremely stupid (because it is common knowledge that it’s cool when you do it, but ‘stupid’ when your kids do the same thing!) I won’t say no.  In fact, I might be the one driving her to a figurative base camp and sending her off on her way to conquering whatever peak she has set her mind to.

That realization doesn’t make any of this easier.

The New York Times article about kids doing extreme sports has an “extreme yearbook” – the youngest child in this list is 7. Imagine that – 7 years old and he has made a name for himself as a minor motocross celebrity! Side note – there is only one girl in this list, but that is material for a whole other post! The article is rife with examples of kids who have hurt themselves (sometimes almost fatally). There isn’t enough research or specialization in the medical community to deal with these kinds of injuries. There is a vast support community for adults, very few for children.

Why do it then? What is it all worth? Where do the parents of these children find the courage to let their little ones go, day after day, injury after another injury? The remarkable human spirit is capable of so much triumph. But for every story of triumph, there are tales of tragedy and loss. Injuries are not limited to extreme sports.  1.35 Million children, who play sports in school, suffer from serious sports-related injuries every year. A concussion happens almost every three minutes.

In the face of all these terrible facts, and my own fears as a parent, I have to decide how I define “courage” to a 5-year-old girl. I believe there is only one way to explain it – courage has to be boundless. Limitless. It cannot be half-hearted. Maybe she will climb mountains, maybe she won’t. Maybe her courage is less about thrill-seeking and more about making her own way through this world. Whatever it may be, the only thing that matters is that she tries, very hard, fully and passionately. Even now, at the tender age of 5, she has the ability to make her will known. I cannot push her to play soccer if she doesn’t want to, any more than I can force her to show an interest in playing the violin. In her own way, she articulates her preferences, and we do our best to understand those choices. The only thing I can ‘push’ her towards is fulfilling the periphery obligations – practice, patience, perseverance. The minor details – those are the only things I can control!

How do you teach your child to be fearless? Will you let your little one climb mountains or BASE jump? Will you let them play contact sports knowing there is a high risk of concussions and other injuries? Will you push them towards sports or away from it, or will you let them decide?

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